Historical Developments that slowly led to the eclipsing of the doctrine of justification by faith alone

I wrote an article on this years ago (2012) at James Swan’s blog, “Beggar’s All Reformation and Apologetics”. You can see the old article there. I have updated and edited this here. Anthony Rogers excellent recent presentation on Sola Fide in the early church has motivated me to update this article and expand it.

James Swan had linked to this book on Purgatory and I finally read through it recently. It is very helpful in getting a handle on how this unbiblical doctrine slowly developed in church history.
(see under point 5)

The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone was eventually neglected, over-shadowed, and eclipsed by the slow development of other unbiblical doctrines and doctrines. Especially external works and rituals have the tendency to eclipse and over-shadow this doctrine.

It (Justification by grace through faith alone) appears at times in the writings of early Christians and early church fathers; but because some of these others things (listed below) were also developing at the same time, and sometimes some early church writers were inconsistent in seeming to affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but also in other contexts emphasize other things; and also some of the other things listed below; this is one of the great reasons for why it is so hard and complicated to figure out what the early church believed about the doctrine after the Biblical era, and until Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther questioned these things. I agree with David King and William Webster and others, that the fathers are not as clear or consistent on this issue, although the evidence is that it was there, it just existed alongside of other traditions and emphases that eventually eclipsed, hid it.

1.  The Mono-Episcopate:  Biblical elders of a plurality of leaders was changed into taking one of the gifted elders out of the college and making him the sole bishop over the other elders in a church; then, later, in an entire area/city.  We can see that elders and bishops were interchangeable in the NT and in the earliest extra-canonical writing 1 Clement (96 AD), the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas.  Then, later we see a change in Ignatius (107-117 AD) and then Cyprian (around 250 AD) takes it further, and beyond in history.  see here for an Evangelical Introduction to church history part 1; and then, Part 2 here, that fleshes it all out.   But even Ignatius knows he does not have authority like an apostle.  (see his epistle to the Magnesians, epistle to the Trallians paragraph 3, verse 3, Ignatius to the Romans, paragraph 4, verse 3, and Ignatius to the Ephesians, paragraph 3, verse 1.  See also here, John Bugay has many excellent articles on this issue here and at Triablogue.   Even Cyprian, in the 250s AD, though he championed the ideas of the mono-episcopate of a local area, and that “the bishop is the church”; even he, did not agree that the bishop in Rome was the bishop of bishops.  He and 86 other bishops from all over the Christian world at the time, clearly stood against Stephen, the bishop of Rome at the time, in 258 AD.   The Mono-episcopate in one church developed into area bishops much later and then much later into the Papal claims and then the western church claiming their bishop is over the eastern churches. (1054 and afterward) Much later, the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome seems to have taken off some by Leo 1 in 440 AD, and then even more from Gregory the Great in 601 AD onward.  After Gregory the Great the power of the bishop of Rome kept developing, reaching a high mark of arrogance and false doctrine in Boniface VIII’s statement in 1302 in the document, Unam Sanctum, (“It is necessary for every human creature to be in submission to the Roman Pontiff for salvation.”); to the arrogance of Pius IX with “I am the tradition”; thus eventually developed into the Papal doctrines and dogma of infallibility in 1870.

2.  Baptismal Regeneration:  NT baptism as an outward evidence and sign/symbol of repentance and faith, an inward reality of regeneration/being born again/union with Christ by faith and repentance was changed into having power to actually cause one to be born again and regenerated. (baptismal regeneration)  The debate and discussion on that issue went on for a long time in the com boxes.  Early writers seem to teach this, and it also seems that this understanding of baptism was pretty much unanimous – but see this group of articles and discussions, (category under “Baptismal Regeneration”). I don’t think it is so clear cut anymore that baptismal regeneration was “unanimous” (at least in the way that Roman Catholics understand it with ex opere operato priestly powers and the state government to punish those that don’t baptise their children (later eras), though it does seem like it.

Additional thoughts on Baptism: It seems to me that when infant baptism was added to the idea of Baptismal regeneration, along with the idea of ex opere operato (Latin for: “from the working, it works” = this means when you go through the right motions and right words of a ceremony / ritual / sacrament, then there is power there to perform and make effective what the Roman Catholic and other ritualistic churches believe happens. They believe that when a baby gets wet in baptism, and the Trinitarian formula is pronounced over them, and the ritual is done in water (for Roman Catholics, sprinkling, for the Eastern Orthodox, immersion three times), then the baby is sanctified, justified, cleansed of original sin – grace comes to the baby with power. But RCs believe that a child looses that justifying grace later when they start sinning, therefore they have to start getting that back by confirmation, confession, penance and doing other works like prayers to Mary and saints and giving alms to the poor. (see # 3 on penance and 4 on confession to the priest and # 7 on categories of venial vs. mortal sins.)

The Biblical and earliest historical examples of baptism we have are adult believers baptism or credo-baptism. But when infant baptism was added alongside of adult baptism in the late second century and early third century. Tertullian wrote against infant baptism in the 190s-2000s; Hippolytus in 215 is the first clear example of infant baptism. But adult believer’s baptism continued with many examples until around the late 300s into the 400s and 500s when infant baptism became the norm, because the whole culture had become “Christian” and parents naturally wanted to baptize their infants according to the prevailing teaching and ideas of the times. When infant baptism is combined with:

A. ex opere operato priestly powers and B. cultural and societal norming of the practice and C. The unity of the State government and enforcement of those that disobey – this created a big problem that was only turned around by the Anabaptists (1500s) and later, General Baptists (1600s) and Reformed Baptists (1600s) movements. The imprisonment of Fritz Erbe and the execution by drowning of Feliz Manz and the executions of many other Anabaptists and Baptists in history was shocking when I first learned these historical facts.

See my article on Baptism, Baptists, and Church History for more.

3.  Penance:  Internal Repentance in the NT (a work of God on the inside that changes us in our heart, soul and mind, resulting in a radical change of life) was changed into an outward external work and/or ritual of penance, the work of satisfaction that one was assigned to do by a priest after confession. (repent vs. “do penance”)  William Webster has an excellent article on this the combines a lot of the other points also.    This was the first point in his list of the 95 theses protest by Martin Luther, in 1517. In the early church, “doing penance” was developed along with private confession to a priest along with purgatory and then, with the treasury of merit of the saints into indulgences which really “took off” during the Crusades and was the spark that started Martin Luther questioning the Roman Catholic Church in 1517. Jerome wrongly translated the Greek word, “metanoia” into “do penance” in Latin, in the 400s, and this persisted until Martin Luther began to see the problem.

Addendum:  (January 3, 2014) – John Bugay made an excellent addition in the com box (on Aug. 15, 2012) to this issue on how the Latin mis-translation of the Greek word for repentance affected subsequent theology and church history. 

4.  Private Confession of sins to the priest for forgiveness:  Biblical confession of sin (1 John 1:9; James 5:16), and public confession of serious sin, developed into private confession of sins to a priest.  See also William Webster’s article under point # 3.  Later, ex opere operato powers were given to the priests after the Donatist controversy.

5.  Purgatory – The idea of praying for the dead for “refreshment” (Tertullian), developed into some kind of after death purging and cleansing (Augustine); and that was developed into a place called Purgatory, with time spent there, sometimes spanning years, decades, even centuries!! Indulgences of paying money or fighting in Crusades promised time lesssened in Purgatory! Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to be the first to speculate on these ideas, then Augustine, in the late 300s and 400s, speculated on a an action of purging / cleansing, but actually did not call it a place or did not speculate on time spent in Purgatory. The doctrine of Purgatory really began to take off more after the 600s AD, when Gregory the bishop of Rome in 590-604 AD made it more mainstream, but even then, it was not until the 1100s and beyond that it was taught as a physical place with time spent there.
The Birth of Purgatory, by Jacques Le Goff. 

6. Indulgences – goes with Purgatory. The selling of indulgences to lessen time in purgatory was the issue that sparked Luther’s 95 theses. See the debate between Dr. James White and Roman Catholic Peter Williams.

Even after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) reformed the selling and buying aspect of indulgences, indulgences as a doctrine, concept and practice is still formally recognized as a doctrine and practiced in the Roman Catholic Church.

7. The treasury of merit – goes with Purgatory. That the saints, especially Mary, have extra merit stored up in heaven that you can get brought down to you by works of merit and add to your merit and reduce time in Purgatory.

James Swan has earlier linked to an excellent book called The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff.   (Scroll down in this “Resources on Roman Catholicism” blog article)

8.  A NT office of priests.  This was wrong, as there is no NT office of “priest” in the local church.  None.  Jesus is our high priest.  For the NT church, there are
a. elders/overseers (same as bishops)/pastors and b.  deacons.  Every believer/saint is a priest to God.  (1 Peter 2:5-10; Revelation 1:6; 5:9-10.)   The word “priest” seems to be first applied to elders and ministers after they started applying OT language of sacrifice in worship to the thanksgiving and worship in the church and at the celebration of the eucharist.  (see # 13)


9.  Categories of mortal sins and venial sins and distinguishing between them. That seems to have started with Tertullian.

10.  Ideas of merit for good works, which is a contradiction to the Biblical teachings on grace.

11.  Gaining merit and indulgences through Pilgrimages to graves and holy sites.  Simple remembering of martyrs’ day of death as a “birthday” (going to heaven) and then venerating their bones (Would Polycarp have approved of such a practice?) , then to pilgrimages and visiting graves of dead saints and praying to them at their graves.

12.  Prayers to dead saints.  2 Maccabees was used to justify this. Whether at their graves or later, in front of pictures, later the icons, or statues.

13.  Prayers to Mary (and statues and icons to her) and the over-exalting of Mary as the greatest human mediator, and then later other false dogmas such as Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, her sinlessness, her Immaculate Conception(1854), and the Bodily Assumption (1950).  She is called, “co-mediatrix” – a clear contradiction to 1 Timothy 2:5.

14.  Almsgiving as a way of satisfaction for sins, often part of the penance assigned by a priest.

15.  Sacrificial language of the mass.  From using NT language of the sacrifices at the temple (Matthew 5:23-26), combining it with the need to reconcile with brothers before worship (Matthew 18:15-20) and taking the sacrificial language of the prophesy of Malachi 1:11 and applying all of that to the eucharist/Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians 11/Luke 22/Matthew 26. The sacrificial language of the OT (Malachi) and NT (Matthew 5:23-26) was not meant to say that the eucharist would be a sacrifice, but rather an application of OT language to worship/thanksgiving/memorial of Christ’s death/celebration in the NT church.

16.   Transubstantiation:  From memorial/spiritual presence of Christ in communion/ eucharist (Biblical) to actual physical presence (Justin Martyr to Radbertus in the 800s) to transubstantiation (developed from the 800s into 1215 AD)

Sometimes the doctrine of justification by faith alone can be discerned in the early church, in the writings of Clement, The Epistle to Diognetes, John Chrysostom (though inconsistent with some other things) and Ambrosiaster seem to be really clear references.   So the early church fathers were inconsistent on the issue of justification by faith.  These 16 practices/doctrines together (and probably with other issues not named here, too) combined to eclipse / hide the doctrine of justification by faith alone, like the moon hiding the sun in an eclipse.   All of these things combined together to over-shadow the doctrine of justification by faith alone over the centuries until Wycliff and Hus and Luther started questioning these things

About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
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